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Lean UX: UX responds to change

Josh Seiden and Jeff Gothelf of product design studio Proof argue we shouldn't pick on the name 'Lean UX' but concentrate on evolving the ideas and methods instead

In 1998, Terry Swack, Clement Mok, and Ric Grefe organised a group of about 40 design leaders for a retreat on Nantucket. In what became the first meeting of AIGA's Advance for Design, these designers talked about how to make sense of the new practice that was emerging in the face of software – what some called 'new media' back then. "How do you do your work?," they asked one another. "What do you call it? What should we call it? How can we collaborate to make the practice better?"

Software had brought radical change to the design world, and a number of related approaches had emerged to deal with it. The Nantucket group decided to call the combination of emerging approaches 'experience design', using a phrase that had been bouncing around at least since Brenda Laurel used it in the 80s. Not everyone in attendance loved the idea. Alan Cooper was one of the attendees. “I argued vehemently and lengthily against experience design," he recalls. “I lost that argument.”

It seemed to represent a good compromise though, and since the goal was to work together to make the practice stronger, a compromise seemed in order. And it seems to have worked out. “These days I don't even care," Cooper says. “You can call it information architecture, plumbing, or even interactive design and it's OK by me. It's all good.”

Inevitably, though, there was backlash at the time. "We've been doing this for a long time!" said folks from the HCI world. "This is the same as ergonomics!" said others. "We already have a name: it's usability!"

History repeating

Why tell this story now? Because the past is repeating itself. Conditions continue to change. Software production today looks little like software production in the late 90s. The advance in platforms and frameworks (Heroku and Ruby on Rails, for instance), and methods such as automated testing and continuous deployment have changed the way we build and deliver software products.

Where software used to be delivered the way we deliver physical products – in a box, a few times a year – we now deliver software continuously. We now have both the opportunity and the demand to create products that evolve constantly, change daily and respond more rapidly to market changes than ever before. In the face of this new reality, designers need new ways to work with software teams.

One approach that's emerged, 'Lean UX', is facing similar backlash. Just as in the late 90s, this approach takes familiar pieces, combines them with some new ideas, and has created something worthy of a new name. Is the name perfect? No. Is there backlash? Of course there is. But is Lean UX, as some have charged, simply a way to sell books and conferences? If you bother to look, I think you’ll see that it is the sincere outcome of software design and development teams seeking to respond to the current environment.

A closer look

Lean UX combines traditional user experience design processes and tactics with the philosophies of agile software development and Lean Startup thinking. It makes use of the ideas developed by the design thinking movement as well. It has two foundational pillars.

First, it opens up the process of software design to a multi-disciplinary team. This team co-creates the product using methods that build team-wide shared understanding. Developers, product managers, QA engineers, marketers and designers of all stripes collaborate to create lightweight versions of the proposed product experiences.

The second pillar is an iterative, learning-oriented approach. Instead of focusing on the perfect solution right out of the gate, the team targets incremental learning. In each iteration, teams create 'minimum viable products' (or MVPs) to test their hypotheses on how to best solve their business problem and bring them closer to working on the 'right' solution – reducing wasted time and effort spent on the wrong ones.

As teams take on the Lean UX approach, the role of user experience designer moves away from wireframe-focused pixel-pusher and more towards customer advocate and design facilitator. Instead of providing highly-detailed design specifications, UX designers create prototypes, conduct customer and stakeholder interviews and provide just enough design to keep the team moving forward to prove out their hypotheses.

Moving on

Lean UX is the evolution of user experience design in the face of changing technologies, markets and consumer demands. It isn’t a lazy or budget approach to user experience design, nor is it a repackaging of existing processes under a new brand. It also is not an excuse to abdicate the experience design process to non-designers.

The methods, tools and problem solving skills required to be a good user experience designer remain as necessary regardless of what your process is called. Teams working this way rely on their UX designers to guide them on which tactics to use, when to use them and to what extent they should be deployed.

If you and your team have been working this way for a long time, you’re at the forefront of the evolution of the UX discipline. But many teams – it’s safe to say most teams – especially those in large agencies and enterprise-level companies, continue to toil under the inefficient, minimally-validated processes driven by waterfall software development.

Instead of decrying the naming of this method or the designers pushing the ideas forward, we prefer to help bring this way of working to these teams so that they can deliver more value faster to their customers and employers.

Just as that Nantucket group came to a naming decision and moved on, so should we. If Lean UX has traction, and it does, let’s agree that it’s an imperfect name and move on. Let’s bring these better ways of working to more organisations and improve the products we deliver to the market. These ideas, like technologies and markets, will evolve and become the next evolution of UX. Let’s save our energy for identifying those trends instead of picking on labels.

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